THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – GOLD COAST SUNS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The Gold Coast Suns embarked on a journey in 2019. It was not with finals in mind that they set out, but with a different destination – respectability. And after the first four rounds of the season, they sat at 3-1, and really could have been undefeated but for a kick against the Saints.

The Suns fell away badly, the young legs unable to sustain the pressure of an entire AFL season, but the point was made early in the season –

Let’s explore the 2020 Suns, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

RE-SIGNINGS

So there was this overarching feeling that Jack Lukosius, Izak Rankine and Ben King would be heading back to South Australia and Victoria respectively at the earliest opportunity, right?

Port Adelaide were even a little smug about it around the time of the draft, and after St Kilda secured the services of King’s twin brother, Max, it was believed that Ben would be joining his brother there sooner rather than later.

But a funny thing happened in 2019 – the kids decided to stick it out with the Suns, and the .

First it was Rankine, deciding to extend his rookie deal with the Suns despite not gracing the field yet. Then it was Ben King, deflating Saints supporters by extending his deal with Gold Coast as well.

The big surprise to me was Lukosius re-signing. I’ll admit – the longer it took, the more I thought he was going to ask to be traded. I even started concocting ways the Suns could secure Brad Crouch by using Lukosius as bait, and whilst that would have been amazing for them in 2020 – adding a high quality mid in Crouch, the retention of Lukosius allows for a group of young stars to develop and grow together.

Lukosius’ re-signing may prove to be one of the defining moments in the history of the Suns. It capped a period that reversed a trend that had to be incredibly worrying for both the organisation and the AFL. After losing both Steven May and Tom Lynch the year before, the commitment of their top three draft picks signifies that the Suns are nowhere near the basket case they were painted as.

And it is great to see.

 

PREMIERSHIP EXPERIENCE

I’m not sure the Gold Coast Suns could have extended their arms any wider to welcome Brandon Ellis to the fold.

The two-time premiership player parted ways with the Tigers after their 2019 flag, and left with the blessing of his teammates and coaching staff. Whilst I am sure that Ellis was ready to go, he recently opened up about not being part of the Tigers’ future plans.

For a competitive person, that would be called “ammunition”.

Ellis may have been a borderline best-22 player for the Tigers, but the experience he brings to the young Suns team – the work ethic required to excel, the habits he has picked up as part of a successful club, and how much you have to be willing to give of yourself – they are incredibly valuable to a team that needs to learn how to win.

A lot was made about Brandon Ellis opening up to his teammates in 2017, and how much it brought the group together. The Tigers came together and became a side that played for each other, and not with each other. In the process they became premiers, and the lessons they learnt along the way are the exact lessons the Suns need to be taught.

Now they have a teacher.

I am writing as though Ellis’ biggest contributions will be off-field, but his 21 touches per game, and importantly, his 77% disposal efficiency will be just the ticket for a Gold Coast side screaming out for a bit of class.

I expect Ellis to take on several roles in 2020. The Suns may need him to get in and get his hands dirty, but they were also lacking a bit of polish on the outside as well. Ellis receiving from Swallow or Greenwood on the outside and going long inside 50, or having a shot himself adds another dimension to a Gold Coast team who need to mix it up as much as possible.

 

SOME HELP DOWN BACK

There is a sigh of relief in the Suns’ defence at the moment, with Rory Thompson training strongly. Before the 2019 season, I wrote a column where I was yapping about which players would be the most important to keep on the park. For the Suns, I thought Thompson’s presence was vital.

And then he did a knee, placing the defence even further under siege.

Gold Coast was forced to endure with Jack Hombsch taking the big jobs, and Charlie Ballard punching way above his weight division (for the time being).

The Suns defence was under siege at points in 2019, and without Thompson, it was like a hole had developed in their walls and the opposition soldiers were able to just waltz on in.

If there was a positive to come out of the injury, it’s that the development of Ballard was fast-tracked, but with Thompson back in the fold, it allows Ballard to develop at a more acceptable rate. as I finished this preview this morning, news came to hand that charlie Ballard will be out for three months with a shoulder issue requiring surgery – this is horrible for the Suns. He showed so much last season, and if there is a team that needs everyone on the park, fit and firing, it’s Gold Coast. I hope it’s the last name mentioned in the same sentence with “injury” this pre-season.

Anyway, with names like Thompson, Hanley, Collins, Hombsch, Harbrow, Weller and Ballard when he returns, the Suns have a solid defence on paper, but it will be largely dependent on how they collectively cover for injury, and how well they can stifle the forward 50 entries as to whether or not we see an improvement in their ability to slow the opposition.

Oh, and I am adding this in late, but I just want to give credit to how good Jarrod Harbrow has been for the Suns since heading to the Gold Coast for the 2011 season. What a warrior.

 

LIKE A NEW RECRUIT

I cannot wait to see what Izak Rankine can do in 2020.

After such huge wraps on him coming into last season, a pair of hamstring and hip injuries prevented him from getting on the park – admittedly, not an ideal scenario to have one so young with those kinds of injuries already.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Rankine has had a relatively smooth pre-season to this point, and with a lot of attention on Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson and their impending debuts, there is a chance Rankine could slip under the radar this season…

… for about fifteen minutes or so.

If Rankine gets a full season under his belt, he will give the NAB Rising Star award a huge shake. People were comparing his potential impact to that of Connor Rozee in Port Adelaide last year, and if that rings true, we could see something special from Rankine in 2020.

No pressure, Izak – haha.

The Suns have a small forward already playing excellent football, in Alex Sexton, and if the combination of Peter Wright and Ben King can contest strongly, opportunities will open up for Rankine to show his class.

Fingers crossed for a Round One debut… Rankine at one end and Rozee at the other… it’d be a treat.

 

A BIT OF GRUNT IN THE MIDDLE

I have to admit, when I heard that Hugh Greenwood was headed to the Suns, I had a bit of a smile. I thought that Gold Coast should really try to get either of him or Cam Ellis-Yolmen to commit to them, as they are exactly the kind of players the Suns need in the guts – big, strong and able to both stand up in tackles, or drop people in them when the tables are turned.

Part of me was hoping the Suns would sign both guys, but it wasn’t to be, with CEY heading to Brisbane. His bullish-work there will greatly aid Lachie Neale in the middle. But the Suns did manage to get the signature of Greenwood, and at 27 years old, is right in the window to both help the team right now, and nurture the talented kids that will make up the next generation of stars on the Gold Coast.

Stuck in a rotation of others who play the same position, Greenwood comes to the Suns offering a combination of excellent inside hustle and the ability to drift forward and clunk a big mark. How the Suns utilise him this season will be extremely interesting.

In watching him over the last couple of seasons, I got the distinct impression that Greenwood was a bull waiting for his China shop. Now that he can get the time and space to operate in the Gold Coast midfield, we should see him hit career-best numbers, whilst able to wreak a bit of havoc with his defensive efforts as well.

He has hovered around 15-17 touches per game in his three years with the Crows and 20+ would be a very reasonable target for him in 2020.

Can he do it? And can he use his inside presence to make life easier for a few of the developing young Suns stars?

You heard it here first – Greenwood will be huge for Gold Coast this season.

 

THE NEXT BIG KING?

Just over seven disposals per game and 1.21 goals per contest doesn’t sound like the kind of season to put a young bloke on the map as one of the better forwards on the horizon, does it?

I mean, seven touches? Joe Ganino gets seven touches at an over 45s night in Port Macquarie, and he is hideous!

But kids take time to find their feet, and it was the form of Ben King over his last five games that should have opened the eyes of the AFL world as to his potential. He was still sitting at just seven touches per game over that period, but it was the way he was getting them, and what he was doing with them that were impressive.

King set Gold Coast hearts aflutter with hard leading, string attacks on the footy, and a beautiful pair of hands in marking contests. With 2.2 goals per game over the last five outings, King gave the Suns a glimpse into what could be… and it could be happening more often as soon as 2020.

At 202 centimetres, King demonstrates the kind of agility and speed that fellow big man, Peter Wright doesn’t. He is quick, and his goal sense is acute. In his first season with the Suns, King took a while to get going, but once he did what he was able to show indicates that his re-signing was vitally important to the future of the Suns.

He’s locked in until 2022 and with Gold Coast expected to be a hell of a lot better by then, could be the centrepiece of a successful forward line for the next 10-12 years.

 

UNSUNG CAPTAINS

So, if I threw these midfield numbers at you – 35 disposals, 22 contested touches, 13 clearances – who would I be talking about? Patrick Cripps? Nat Fyfe? Ben Cunnington?

Nope – I am talking about one of the most unsung in-and-under mids in the game – Gold Coast co-captain, David Swallow.

Swallow had 10+ clearances on three occasions in 2019 as he put the young Suns on his back, playing like a warrior against significant odds. He has had his career cruelled by injury in recent seasons, and at times in 2019 looked like he was more bandage than man, but there he was, week after week, throwing himself into contests against the league’s best and more than holding his own.

He fronted up for all 22 games in 2019 – something many thought he was incapable of, and was a wonderful leader of a club that could have very well gone down the gurgler with a spiritless campaign…

… but David Swallow wouldn’t allow that, and he deserves a tonne of credit for his efforts.

Standing beside him… or towering over him, more accurately, is Jarrod Witts, who had a ripping year in the middle for the Suns.

Only four men have ever topped 1000 hit outs in a season. Max Gawn in 2018, Brodie Grundy in 2018 and 2019, Todd Goldstein in 2015, and Jarrod Witts joined them in 2019.

That should give you an example of how good Witts was, standing up in the face of adversity on this team, taking a physical beating every week, and – like Swallow – refusing to lay down. He competed in all 22 games as well, leading from the front.

Look, Witts could use a bit of work on directing those taps to advantage; he was dropping them at his own feet a little too often for my liking, when a tap to a teammate on the move would have been much more effective, but at no stage in 2019 was he soundly beaten in the ruck. He may have had his colours lowered a couple of times, but he went down swinging, and his work ethic would be a shining example for the rest of the team to follow.

In the last couple of days, the Suns announced that the pair will co-captain the team again in 2020. It is a very wise move, demonstrating stability and trust in those in leadership positions.

The Suns will be on the up, and it will largely be due to the commitment of their two co-captains when things weren’t so great. When the chips were down and things looked bleakest, the young Suns looked for leadership.

They found it in Jarrod Witts and David Swallow.

 

THE GROWTH OF FIORINI

Prior to the 2019 season, I made the mistake of purchasing the AFL Prospectus. Apparently this is the tome that AFL coaches can’t do without… maybe it’s handy in case they run out of toilet paper. It’s a piece of garbage – save your forty bucks, people.

As if I need to give you any more reason to avoid it, this mob rated Brayden Fiorini as “poor” heading into 2019. It is the lowest possible rating in the system they employ, which tells me either the system is shitty, or… actually, it just tells me that the system is shitty.

I’m sure Fiorini got wind of it at some stage, and his work in 2019 was that of a player with a point to prove. He had eight games registering 30+ disposals, including a career-high 38 touches against Port Adelaide in a game where he pumped the Suns inside 50 nine times.

At 21, he was asked to be something he was probably not ready to do, and become a reliable midfielder in a struggling side. I reckon he may have surprised a few last year with what he was able to accomplish. As we enter his fourth AFL season, the now-22 year old has better support around him, and could really break out as a genuine star this season. Though his disposal efficiency was not great last season, some bigger bodies and better protection should see him flourish.

So, how much can Fiorini flourish in 2020? The combination of Ellis and Greenwood will give the Suns a physical presence that was falling entirely to David Swallow last year. Their heavy work could go a long way to giving Fiorini the space he needs to become more effective and start getting more footy on the outside.

If he hasn’t improved his disposal efficiency (it was 61.1% in 2019) by at least five percent this season, I’d be very surprised. He has the capacity to hit 28 touches per game this year, and if he can get forward and hit the scoreboard a little more often (five goals in 2019 from 21 shots) he may be the difference in a game or two.

I’ve been on Fiorini for a couple of years now. The potential is apparent, and it seems as though he is hitting the point in his career where he is ready to make a significant name for himself, just as the Suns have put in place a structure to support him. I hope he has a big year.

 

THE SEX

Here’s another player who re-signed in 2019, and he did so when his value was probably at its highest.

Alex Sexton had a great start to 2019, and if you’re looking for a reason the Suns were able to get a fast start, you could do a lot worse than check out Sexton’s early season form. With 12 goals in the first four rounds, Sexton was the most effective small forward in the game, and his influence on the Gold Coast forward line had them walking taller.

He is an opportunist, a goal-sneak in every sense of the word (or is it two words?) but there are aspects to his game that require a bit of attention. I like what he provides this team, but there are times he gets a little… hmmm, Bartlett-esque I suppose is a term that applies. Sexton is prone to having a bit of tunnel vision when the goals are in range.

There were times I didn’t really blame him – there may have been a player in better position, but Sexton from 40 metres out on an angle was just as good a bet as a teammate 40 out right in front. He has supreme skill, and at points was able to conjure goals that were genuine difference makers, but there were other times when a player had run hard to make position, and Sexton was slamming the ball on his boot under pressure, hoping it may score. There has to be a better balance.

Look, this isn’t meant to be a whack – Sexton is an elite small forward in the game, and I understand that it is his job to put score on the board, and that would have been particularly difficult in a Suns team that was struggling to score at all at points, but with 12 months more in the system, Ben King will be a more reliable forward option (I loved his late season form) and if Izak Rankine slots in up forward, the Suns will start looking a lot more classy inside 50.

More options may make life a lot easier for Sexton, and though he may maintain or even improve his 1.8 goals per game, I’d like to see him get his score involvements per game above five or perhaps even six per game this season – it was 4.7 in 2019.

 

THE HEART OF THE TEAM

Am I the only one hoping that we get another round of Touk Miller getting in the face of Dayne Zorko this season?

I love a good one-on-tussle in footy… just as I do in the bedroom.

Okay, that was lowbrow, but I guess if you’ve been reading a while, you know what to expect.

Word has it that when Tom Lynch told the group he was departing, it was Touk Miller that spoke up and had the most to say on the situation. I like that about him – he gives a shit, and in a sporting landscape where players are a little robotic at times, hearing about someone with genuine care and emotion for his team and teammates was refreshing.

People forget that Miller is just 23 years old (24 by the time the season starts) and whilst it would be a stretch to claim that he is going to be a star, he has not yet peaked, which is a nice little ace to have up your sleeve if you’re Stuart Dew.

He has 100 games under his belt, and strikes me as a glue-guy on this team. You know what I mean by that?

A glue-guy is someone who helps the team gel. He binds them all together. He doesn’t overstep and try to be the hero – he plays his role, is great with his teammates and would bleed for the team. That’s what Touk Miller represents to me at the Gold Coast Suns, which makes him an incredibly valuable commodity.

His 5.7 tackles per game had him slotting into the top 20 in the league in that category, with only Darcy MacPherson (14th) ahead of him on the Suns. Those two provide a hard edge that will welcome the addition of Hugh Greenwood (15th) to the mix, with the Suns possessing three of the top 20 tackles in the game.

I know, I know… there are cynics that’d state it is easy to have high numbers in tackles when you haven’t got the footy, right? That’s cheap – tackling is an effort stat and with Miller, MacPherson and Greenwood combining in the middle, I can’t see opposition midfielders having a good time at their expense.

And Stuart, if you’re reading, please unleash Touk on Zorko again – it’s quality viewing. Cheers.

 

A BIT OF D-MAC AGGRESSION

The name of our site is The Mongrel Punt. We like a bit of argey-bargey, and we like it when a player flies the flag.

And I was really pleased to see that aspect of the game from Darcy MacPherson in 2019.

It would be easy to take the beatings and move on after a while. It’d be habitual to be beaten, and to accept it, but there is a fire in MacPherson that can ignite at any moment, and it did on a few occasions in 2019.

I loved that he was willing to mix it up, irrespective of the score, as it indicates that he has a bit of pride not only in himself, but in his team as well. I have a lot of time for players who give a shit, and he strikes me as someone to whom losing isn’t going to be accepted any more.

When I watch the way he attacks the contest, how he does not shirk the issue, and how he will stand toe-to-toe with anyone and have a crack, I know he is the sort of player I’d like to play alongside. He is the sort of player that would have your back. He is the sort of player that will be valuable to these young Suns as they develop.

MacPherson is now heading into his fifth year on the list. He has seen the hard times and stuck them out, but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter, and he’ll be part of the Suns when they get there.

A big part. 

 

THE BAD

 

IT’S GONNA TAKE TIME

This might be a little hard to read for Suns fans, but though the corner has been turned, the road back to respectability is a long one, and with such a young team, and new faces entering the fray, it may yet be a wait until the victories start coming.

I am always a bit wary of teams who get a bunch of recruits starting simultaneously. The hopes are usually pretty high, but the results rarely match the anticipation.

Let’s look at a couple of recent case studies.

Essendon in 2018 were an interesting case. They brought in Devon Smith, Jake Stringer and Adam Saad, and though the individuals more than played their part, the team didn’t drastically improve.

North Melbourne just last season had Aaron Hall, Jasper Pittard, Dom Tyson and Jared Polec pull on the royal blue and white, but the results were mixed, despite an excellent season from Pittard.

Chemistry takes time, and though we’ve all heard about the relationship between Noah Anderson and Matt Rowell, there are 40-odd other blokes that have to establish relationships with these kids – it isn’t just going to happen.

The other part of the equation, and perhaps more important is knowing the way your teammates are going to play. Last year at North Melbourne, I watched Polec’s teammates feed him the footy on his wrong side a heap of times, and it resulted in Polec hacking away at the footy in an unfamiliar position. We may see some early issues with players like Brandon Ellis and Hugh Greenwood – in positions they are not completely comfortable with due to unfamiliarity.

The good news is that this soon passes.

Using Polec again as the example, his second half of the season was much better than his first. You could see him starting to acclimatise to his new surroundings and teammates. Maybe this kind of familiarity will help the Suns be a little better in the second half of the season this year.

The level of talent at Gold Coast has increased markedly this off-season, and the addition of Rowell, Anderson, Flanders, Greenwood and Ellis will add to a list brimming with potential stars like Lukosius, King, Rankine and a host of others. If we’re assessing on talent alone, the Suns have made significant strides to close the gap with other teams looking to improve, but I don’t think we’ll see the brilliant passages of play from them, combining seamlessly as though they’ve been playing together for years, until the second half of the season.

And by that stage, I hope their legs can keep them going.

 

 

THE UGLY

 

THE DROP OFF

There was a dramatic fall away late in the 2019 season from the tired Gold Coast Suns. Over the last four games of the season, their average losing margin of 75.5 points.

The cue was  well and truly in the rack, and I’m not sure the Suns, with so many young players out of gas, could have raised much of a gallop even if they’d wanted to.

This cannot be the case in 2020.

The Suns have made efforts to recruit mature bodies, and the additions of Greenwood, Ellis and the returning Zac Smith should give them more ability to run games out, and remain competitive as the season draws to a close. I don’t expect the Suns to be causing upsets late in the season, as there is a distinct chance players like Rowell, Anderson, Lukosius, Rankine and Flanders could hit the wall, but the more mature players should able to limit the damage this season.

Really, I would have liked to see Gold Coast add one or two more capable mature players, but their eyes are obviously on this young cohort and how they develop together over the next few years. They have the potential to build a winner here, and the recruitment of the experienced players will aid that and give the young players the mentoring they require.

 

WE COULD SEE ANOTHER THREE-WIN SEASON, BUT…

… the Suns will be a better team.

How does that work?

I’m glad I asked. You see, the Suns started 2019 like they’d been shot out of a cannon, and then they exploded in fragments like they’d been shot out of a cannon.

There were some that predicted the 2019 Suns would go through the season winless. That idiotic prediction was quickly put to rest by a team with a chip on their collective shoulder. They had had prepared as well as any team in the league, hearing all the predictions of their mediocrity and were determined to stick them right up people’s backsides.

And their play early in the season did just that.

But the head start they got in fitness was soon bridged, and they fell back to the pack, and once they did, the chasm between them and the more talented teams widened.

Teams will be expecting them to come out of the gates fast this season, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say teams like Fremantle or the Western Bulldogs underestimated the hungry Suns, but I can guaran-damn-tee you teams like Port Adelaide, Geelong and Sydney will have taken notice of the way the Suns hit the 2019 season, and they will not be taking them lightly in any way.

The Suns probably won’t start the season 3-1 again, and really, they may end the season with a comparable record to 2019 overall – I hope they’re a lot better, and I think they will be, but whether or not that is reflected in their record is another thing.

While I think 4-5 wins is attainable, I would not be too upset if Gold Coast finish on three wins again in 2020. At the moment, it is not as much about the wins as it is about the development of the kids, and the cohesion of the team, and we’ll see quite an improvement in 2020 in that regard.

 

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